In law class tonight, we got to talking about a hypothetical situation (a hypothetical situation in law class? no, go on...) - one where our job was to roll out an information technology infrastructure to a small "third world" country. In this exercise, there was an established, underdeployed, corrupt government-sponsored telco, to which we could do with as we pleased.
The near-uninamous reaction of the class to immediately privatize the telco seemed specious at best, and quite alarmed me. This was in a class of what I had judged to be effectively socialist Harvard students. Maybe I missed something.
I see this attitude more and more every day in the States. The president is arguing that social Security should be privatized. Affordable, universal health care is not a human right. Philadelphia should not set up municipal wifi, lest Verizon lose a few of their precious monopoly-protected dollars. Of course, intelligent debate and discourse is healthy in a republic, but the list goes on. And lately, I feel this attitude has been snowballing.
I think that many are forgetting the astoundingly high opportunity costs that are involved in entering a market; that economies of scale coupled with legislation and corruption on the macro level favor existing players. Even with the "democracy" of capitalism where we allegedly vote with our dollars, economies of scale and information imbalances all too often work against the individual consumer. There are latent costs everywhere in the system - and from where I'm sitting, they almost always favor the incumbents.
I strongly believe that some things should just work (tm) and should just work (tm) regardless of whether they are economically "practical" or not. Poor kids should have food, education, and health care. Even if they live in a rural town and don't know who their father is. Roads, fire departments, water/sewers, electricity, defense. All this infrastructure should just work. On a macro level. 24/7/365.
In these sorts of situations, individual contributors can't go it alone, and hoping for the goodwill (aka free advertising) of large corporations is a non-starter. Sometimes we need to vote and act with our hearts and minds, and not only with our wallets.
The government has done and continues to do good things. It is supposed to be an infrastructure that we as a society can build on. In no small part, it should be an enabler. It is supposed to do the hard things that we can't do individually, but are collectively achievable. Sometimes we need to do the right thing, even if the right thing isn't the cost-effective thing. To this end, government should sometimes be a check against the "free" market and sometimes a carrot that leads the market to the ends society desires.
Whether or not a government-sponsored telco is the right answer to the above problem, I honestly don't know. I do know that a knee-jerk reaction against government involvement, while sometimes understandable, is often innappropriate. Sorry for venting.